Stephanie Mulligan: Education grad writes children’s book about lobster fishing

When Stephanie Mulligan was a sophomore at University of Maine, she started writing a poem about her experience working on the Lucky Catch, a lobster fishing tour boat out of Casco Bay.

“I loved every day,” she says. “I loved the people I met from all over the world — they were always excited to be there. I always loved teaching and meeting new people, and working with others.”

Mulligan worked on the Lucky Catch for eight years — starting in high school, and throughout her time at UMaine. More than a decade after starting that poem, she turned it into “How to Catch a Keeper,” a children’s book that she self-published this year.

“I wrote the majority of it when I was in my early 20s, and then I put it away and didn’t really touch it for probably six years,” she says.

Although she always loved writing, Mulligan says she never really pictured herself as a writer. She wanted to teach. In 2008, she graduated from the College of Education and Human Development with a degree in elementary education and a minor in dance. After graduation, she worked as an educational technician in Cumberland before meeting her husband, Matthew, a former Black Bear football star who played nine seasons in the NFL. (They didn’t know each other in college, even though they graduated the same year.) The couple moved to Lincoln to be close to family, and Mulligan taught middle school language arts.

In 2013, pregnant with their first daughter, Mulligan decided to revisit the poem she started all those years ago. She had a breakthrough when she met artist Connie Rand, who also lives in Lincoln, and who agreed to do the illustrations for the project.

“How to Catch a Keeper” tells the story of Luke and Layla, two kids who join their dad on the Lucky Catch for a day of lobster fishing off the Maine coast. The children learn about everything from buoys and winches, to how to tell the difference between male and female lobster, to seals, seagulls and other ocean creatures. Rand’s illustrations, originally done in acrylic, bring the story to life. There’s also a glossary of “Lobstering Lingo,” and an accompanying activity book with more ways to learn about lobster fishing and the Maine coast.

Mulligan decided to self-publish the book, in part so it would qualify for the Maine Made logo.

“We could have had a thousand more copies printed in China,” Mulligan says. “But it was really important to me that it be printed in Maine. We had it printed at J.S. McCarthy Printers in Augusta. Everyone involved in the book are Mainers, so that’s a really big deal.”

Since its release, Mulligan says she’s received a lot of positive feedback for “How to Catch a Keeper.” That includes a silver medal for the e-book version in the 2019 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.

Even though she didn’t set out to write a children’s book when she wrote the poem that would become “How to Catch a Keeper,” looking back, Mulligan says there were hints of what was to come during her time at UMaine. She remembers a creative writing class taught by English professor Deborah Rogers, who told her, “I think you’re going to write a book someday.” Mulligan also has a fond memory of meeting the late Passamaquoddy elder and children’s book author Allen Sockabasin in a class taught by Jane Wellman-Little, a lecturer in literacy education.

Now that she’s an author herself, Mulligan says she hopes to inspire young students to follow their passions like she has.

“Getting to meet writers, like Allen Sockabasin, was hugely influential,” she says. “I hope one day that I can have that kind of an effect on someone.”

Originally from Otisfield, now living in Lincoln, Maine.

Degree earned:
Bachelor of Science in elementary education (English concentration) and a minor in dance.

Describe your book, “How to Catch a Keeper,” and what age level it’s for:
It’s about a father taking his two children out on a lobster tour boat, the Lucky Catch. The dad has already been on the tour, and he’s excited to share the experience with his kids. He kind of takes them step-by-step through a day on the water.

The reading level is second to third grade. I’ve had feedback from a lot of adults saying their kids, and they themselves, learned so much about lobster fishing, which is wonderful to hear because the book is educational. Also, Connie Rand did a great job with the illustrations. I get a lot of comments from people who love how unique and realistic her paintings are.

Talk about what inspired you to write the book:
I think it was my sixth year working on the Lucky Catch — so my sophomore year at UMaine — and I remember coming home from work one day and thinking, “I really want to write this all out. I really want to remember this experience.” I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to write a children’s book.” I just liked writing, and I decided, “I’m going to write a poem about this,” because I loved it.

I revisited the poem around 2013, and submitted it to a few publishers. But it wasn’t as polished as the final version. In 2015, I happened to be talking to Connie, who runs the “Welcome to Lincoln, Maine” website, and I knew she was an artist. So I asked her, “Do you know anyone who would be interested in doing a children’s book?” And she said, “I have always wanted to do a children’s book.” So we just started going back and forth, and it took us several more years but we finally were able to put it out this year.

Did any of your UMaine professors influence the writing of the book? If so, who and how were they influential?
Professor Deborah Rogers in the English department said to me one time in a creative writing class, “I think you’re going to write a book someday.” So there must have been something — some kind of glimpse of something to her. I don’t remember if it was in response to something I wrote, I just remember it was very encouraging. Also, Jane Wellman-Little, (lecturer in literacy education). I still have all of the picture books that we analyzed in her children’s literacy class. Allen Sockabasin, who wrote “Thanks to the Animals,” came to speak to one of Jane’s classes too. I asked him to sign my copy of his book, which I still have. Things like that, just getting to meet people who live in Maine, who are writers and creative people was very inspiring to me.

Do you think you’ll write any more books?
Right now, I’m working on “How to Tap a Maple.” I’ve been inspired by my father-in-law, who taught my children how to tap a maple tree this year.

Why UMaine?
I wanted to stay in Maine for college, and UMaine has a great reputation. When I decided I wanted to teach, I was impressed by the quality of the program and the faculty in the College of Education and Human Development. Then there were all of the extracurricular opportunities, especially Maine Bound and dance club. The dance program was a big draw, because I knew I wanted to keep dancing, which I’d done in high school, and it was all-inclusive without being overly competitive.

How would you describe the academic atmosphere at UMaine?
I always felt my professors were friendly, easy to talk to and tried to work with students to help us succeed. They definitely held us accountable, but they also were there to support us and to pass along their knowledge.

What difference has UMaine made in your life and in helping you reach your goals?
I really wanted to be a teacher, and I feel like UMaine prepared me for that. I was as an Ed Tech III in Cumberland after graduation, and then I had my own classroom in Lincoln at Mattanawcook Junior High School, teaching seventh and eighth grade language arts.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
The coffee shop in Fogler Library.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
I continue to stay in touch with some of my professors. I stop in to see Deb (Rogers) and Jane (Wellman-Little) once in a while. So I still feel connected. I hope to connect even more, especially now that I’ve written this book. I want to give back in a way like those authors who came in while I was a student.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.5814.3751